Saturday, September 18, 2010

Smoking, theologically speaking?

Marcus Borg, in Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, tells a marvelous smoker's tale. "Do you know what Karl Barth said about smoking and theologians? Well, he said that you can tell what kind of theologian somebody is by what they smoke. If they smoke cigarettes they're liberal; if they smoke cigars, they're orthodox; and if they smoke a pipe, they're neo-orthodox. Then somebody asked Barth, 'What if they don't smoke?' And he said, 'then, they are no theologian at all.'"

Rodney Clapp, in the September 21, 2010 Christian Century, writes that “Few things better slow down a busy day and bring it in for a relaxed landing than a burning stogie and an iced bourbon.” Clapp gives away that he must be neo-orthodox. Of course that’s not bad company.

This week’s article by Clapp is entitled “The Nicotine Journal.” His opening paragraphs are reflections on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, (the newest edition from Fortress is now available, which I highly recommend). Specifically, Clapp recounts Bonhoeffer’s continued reference to the pleasures of smoking. Clapp goes on to cite the smoking habits of other renowned theologians in order to build his case for the power of smoking in, what I might call, the community building derived from joining friends and colleagues in theological conversations, while enjoying the relaxing benefits of tobacco. His points are convincing as tells us, “it’s never too late to start.”

Of course, Clapp provides the politically and health appropriate disclaimers in order to keep the letters to the editor at a minimum. I’m anxious to get the next copy to see who takes exception, or commends.

I’ll be back later. I need to go outside for a few minutes.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Hate my mom?

Hate my mother?
Luke 14:25-33

Luke 14:26 is one of those verses that appears so incongruous with Jesus’ other teaching that I wonder if it was a misprint or if someone hard of hearing is the one who “remembered” it to the rest of the community.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Hate my mother? What happened to love your neighbor? Aren’t my children at least my neighbors?

What tears at my heart in this text (Luke 12:25-33 Sunday Pentecost 15 lectionary) is that my entire theology, my understanding of my calling as a priest, is built out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s relational theology. I see ministry through the eyes of my relationship with God and everyone around me. God, in Bonhoeffer’s theology, is a vulnerable and suffering God and I am to lead and to relate to the world around me through Jesus model of the crucified Christ. So how does hating my family fit into this paradigm?

As did Bonhoeffer, we have to look between the lines of the scriptural words to find the possible essence of meaning, while realizing we will never know the exact meaning of Jesus’ words.

First, and nothing should be lost on this, verse twenty-five tells us that a large crowd was “traveling” with Jesus. We are on a pilgrimage (traveling) from where we exist to where God is fetching us. We have yet to arrive. In fact, we may never arrive at our destination. We are pilgrims, aliens in a foreign land. And as foreigners, we don’t speak the local language.

So, what is this language of “hate” that Jesus is speaking?

My Clinical Pastoral Education mentor taught me that to be present to the hospital patient, the dying parishioner, the suffering soul, I must first detach myself, separate myself, get up on the balcony in order to see their picture of life as it really is without my own personal baggage obscuring my view.

The same is the case in my relationship with the person I love the most. I must, in order to love them, set down my own set of agendas and lower the barrier of my ego. To love them the most, I must stop loving them. To see them, I must stop seeing them, as my ego wants to see them.

In order to be present, to get into the skin of the suffering of the other person, I must first lay down my own baggage, I must detach myself, I must, in order to love, remove myself (totally disregard the relationship). Can I hear them? Can I take into account the critique of someone who loves me? Can they hear me? Not if too much of my own sentimentalism (which is usually confused as love) clouds the window.

How do I find the strength or means to detach? Jesus tells us to be like him. In verse twenty-seven in this text, we hear Jesus say, whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

I know about Jesus’ cross of the crucifixion. Is this what I have to do? What is my cross? The word for “cross” here is “signatio,” the sign. It’s as if I am being asked to wear the ashes of Ash Wednesday on my forehead 24/7. Jesus is asking me if I can become like him to the point of wearing his mark on my forehead. Can my Christianity be clearly evident and prominent for all to see? Can I wear the tattoo of Christ? I am not called to be Jesus – but to be his follower.

Wearing the sign of the Cross is the key to detachment, separating myself so that others see Jesus, not me – as Saint Paul describes Jesus, “he emptied himself.” By setting my ego, and my “self” aside, like Jesus did, I can relate to the other and begin to feel their pain and be fully present to them. As Saint John said, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease.” And Jesus could have said that I must fade away in order for the one I love to be fully present.

In order to love my neighbor as myself, I must, in essence hate (detach from) my family and even myself. In typical Jesus fashion it’s a subversive reversal – an ultimate paradox. In order to live, I must die. In order to love, I must hate (detach).

Too hard? Almost. Painfully difficult? Most likely. Typically Jesus? Absolutely. My mom may not like this. Then again.

Monday, August 02, 2010


So, why write something about a movie that is walking away at the box office? It’s one of the few films I would pay to see again, that’s why. Not because “I like it.” Who cares? For a film to get double time from me it has to be subtle and nuanced.

From my perspective, Inception is post-modern Jungian tale that dares toy with the subjects of synchronicity, individuation, redemption and resurrection. The film rattles the cage of philosophical encounter with questions of substance. Will I accept the responsibility for my own decisions or transfer that self-accountability to others or the circumstances I find myself in. Can I listen so deeply to the other’s story that I might find my place within their narrative? How deep I am willing to go into my darkness to discover the redemptive moment? Is resurrection a personal or communal experience?

Of course the obvious questions of reality or literal, linear existentialism are there to amuse us. One trapped in the experience of absolutism is annoyed by the inconclusiveness of the spinning totem. But, what does it matter? Is reality, or what is confused as truth, the necessity of existence? Not necessarily, given the possibility for love, given and received. But isn’t the demand for reality a projection of an inner demand for the personal perfection of egotism? As Cobb tells Mal, “you are too perfect, too flawed, too complex,” all of course, his own projections.

I will admit my own temptation to make the religious analogy, but, for fear of the precarious position of the totem, I resist, for now.

To the mundane; though no critic, I personally found Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance of the tortured, seeking soul is what kept me intrigued during this lengthy film. And while I have enjoyed Ellen Page’s acting in her two previous movies, I found this beyond my willingness to accept her as the best person for the character she was asked to become. However, Marion Cotillard as Mal was captivating, her expressions alone near plumbed the depths of despair. But I admit, the more troubled and complex the character, the more empathetic my soul.

One final comment, a labyrinth is not a maze – that was distracting – but, flaws tumble the top, no?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tribute to a colleague

Tribute to a colleague, The Rev. Gordon McBride

The Reverend Gordon McBride, retired rector of Grace St. Paul’s, Tucson, has gone to rest in the soul of God, joining the communion of saints. He has set down his earthly pilgrim’s bag and taken up the journey of eternal formation. We commend our brother Gordon to the Presence of God the Trinity.

Meanwhile, here in this dimension of time, I will miss Gordon. He was a wise sage, skilled facilitator of the Commission on Ministry, a voice for a more progressive Christian theology, and an inspiration to those of us who dare to consider ourselves writers. His encouragement was that he made time during his life as a university parish priest to be the author he dreamed. And then he created the joyful space to travel and promote his works.

Gordon’s writing inspired me to be transparent and vulnerable about the inner life that I feared priests could not. For that, I am deeply appreciative. While he was committed to his craft, he didn’t take himself so seriously that he was unapproachable about the nuts and bolts of writing. He was always willing to share his knowledge with me. For that I am grateful and will miss. But, most of all, I will miss his presence, his provocation, his willingness to gently confront.

In the last few months we, and I, have lost two brothers of the priesthood, Gordon and the Rev. Richard George. Both were leaders, mentors and spiritual guides. Because they would expect as much, we will pray for them, their families and ourselves. And we will dare walk in their path, carrying our own pilgrim’s bag until it is our time to join them on the next journey, in the life on the otherside.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Herding Snails

Herding Snails

This morning we are in Camarillo, California on our way to Santa Barbara to spend a few days at Mount Calvary. As is our custom, we went on a long walk. The ocean-side mountains are hid from our view by the cool, misty fog. It made for a gentle contrast to the harsh desert heat we fled.

Somewhere in our wondering, we came upon a stretch of about eight feet of sidewalk to discover nearly a dozen snails crossing the four-foot path. The snails were at varying degrees of their journey. Some were near the goal of the lush vegetation lining the opposite side of the walk. Others were just beginning, what I imagine, was a long journey.

We stopped to admire their pace. Being on the first day of our holiday, it was a good reminder.

It was also a moment of musing. We often remark about the impossibility of herding cats, especially for the leaders of our large institutions of independent thinkers, like universities, public schools and the Church.

But, maybe in our archaic and behemoth structures, leaders are more likely faced with herding snails instead of the quicker feline. What institutional participant moves with the grace and agility of the cat when change is at hand?

My own experience and that of my walking partner’s, both of whom have many years of leadership in gigantic and ancient crumbling pillars of America, is that directing change is like the herd of the snails we encountered.

Our approach as leaders, if focused on the process and not the outcome, might find our “herd” less startled, frightened, and scattering for cover, but instead, if leaders are patient, will find our charges willing to move at their own pace towards a new feeding ground, where the fruits will yield a result far outstripping our strategic planning.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Esmay named head baseball coach at ASU

The right man for the job

Congratulations to Tim Esmay, named the head baseball coach at Arizona State University. AD Lisa Love made the obvious right choice. The number one ranked Sun Devils have gone 47-8 under Ez’s leadership this year. They are headed into the NCAA Regional tournament this weekend seeded number one.

Grand Canyon University players and fans know Tim from his years as a player at ASU during several storied and heated battles that included some pretty good games, too. Others will remember Coach Esmay during time as an outstanding assistant at Canyon. And still others will recognize Tim as the former head coach at the University of Utah during our WAC days.

Tim is leader of young men. He is a fierce competitor, gentlemen, family man, and devoted Sun Devil. He’s the kind of man that all of us would be pleased and proud for our sons to play baseball under his guidance.

Usually in the world of sports, I find myself asking, why? In this unique case, I am applauding the best choice possible. I want to wish the best of luck to Coach Ez and the Sun Devils in the tournament and for years to come.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

What does the Spirit smell like?

“Man it smells good in here. What’d you cook tonight? I can’t distinguish all the aromas,” Chad said as he walked into the back door of the parish hall.

“What does your nose tell you?” I asked.

“For sure, I smell falafels, the spices and the olive oil, that much I know.”

I held up a plate of the chickpea patties covered with aluminum foil. Chad smiled. “Okay what else?” I asked.

“Hmm, there’s something else in the air but I can’t quite make it out. The falafels are making my mouth water. But, there’s something else you baked, ah, that’s it, you baked bread.”

“Yep, I baked a batch of whole wheat and honey communion bread, its fresh out of the oven.” I held up another plate, stacked with six of the round loaves.

“Whoa, that combination of smells is almost intoxicating,” Chad said as carried his guitar into the parish hall to set up for another evening of Saint Brigid’s Community and Peregrini.

The reading for our worship the evening was from John 14. “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

I asked the group, “When you close your eyes and let your memory drift, what are the best smells that come to you?”

“My grandmother and I were so close,” Ruth responded in tears. “After she died, my mom asked me to help sort out my grandmother’s things. When I opened the closest, my grandmother’s clothes were still hanging there. I put my face into her dress and I could smell my grandmother,” the emotion was too much for Ruth to continue.

“I remember the smell of our new born son,” someone said.

“The smell of my mother’s Thanksgiving dinners,” came from a voice tucked down in a sofa near the back of the room.

“A freshly mowed lawn,” said another.

“When I close my eyes and let myself go into that special place, I can still smell the sweet aroma of my wife the first time we kissed, forty years ago.” That was my offering.

A smell will trigger our most powerful memory. Blessed aromas that evoke sweet memories draw the rest of our being into complete integration,

Later in the evening Ruth spoke about the presence of God in the whole of our being, in the smell of our sensuality, in the completeness of our lives. She suggested to us that the liturgy of our Eucharistic prayers, are indeed sensual texts because they fetch all of our memory and imagination into the present moment.

Alyssa reminded us of last year when she had injured her foot and couldn’t dance. Being forced to sit on the sidelines while her classmates continued rehearsing for recitals was almost too much to bear. Her professor invited her to lie on floor and go through her routine as if she were floating through the air. Her memories carried her without putting pressure on her foot.

Annie’s soft voice drew our attention from the end of the line of tables. She rarely speaks into these gatherings. We all leaned into her voice.

“I’ve been journaling a lot lately. Sometimes I find myself just writing words and wondering, ‘why these words?’ And I realize I’m writing my prayer thoughts. I’ve wondered if I could close my eyes and write my thoughts?” Collectively, we leaned into our own space and closed our eyes. Silence held us together for a bit.

I wonder if we could live our lives with our eyes closed, relying and trusting only on the aroma of the Holy Spirit to lead us?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Governor, Please veto SB 1070

Dear Governor Brewer,

Please veto SB1070.

Please listen to those who are praying. Listen to those who stand praying outside your home. Open your ears to those who stand in prayer vigils outside State Offices. Listen to voices that pray for you, pray for the State government and pray for its citizens and visitors.

The voices that are praying are asking you to consider our responsibility to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” The voices that are praying live under the admonition to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, to give the thirsty something to drink, visit the sick and those in prison and embrace the stranger in our land.” (Matthew 25:35)

In this morning’s Arizona Republic the editors are asking for you to have the courage to do the reasonable and compassionate thing, not the expedient thing, and veto the bill. In the same publication the Rev. Warren Stewart and the Rev. Jim Wallis said this issue is more than a State issue. This is a national issue, they said and they asked you do the humane thing and veto the bill.

Christian Clergy and parishioners across this State, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodist, Lutherans, Baptists, Non-denomination clergy, clergy who would not worship together because of their theological differences, have come together to plead with you to veto SB 1070. Please listen to those that are praying for you.
Here is my prayer for you, from the Book of Common Prayer.

O God, the fountain of wisdom, whose will is good and gracious, and whose law is truth: We beseech you so to guide and bless our Governor that she may enact such laws as shall please you, to the glory of your Name and the welfare of the people of the State of Arizona. Amen.

In prayer,

The Rev. Dr. Gil Stafford
Vicar and Chaplain
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish
Tempe, Arizona

I sent this morning to the Governor at

Friday, April 16, 2010

Yes on Proposition 100

What can you buy for a penny these days? Not much. Ah, but for the good old days.
As a six-year-old, my parents would send me to the corner store to buy whatever was needed, a morning paper, a carton of milk, some missing ingredient for the cake my mom was baking. Typically, my parents would give me a few pennies of the change. I started saving those pennies because I loved baseball cards. When I had twenty-five cents saved, I would take my pennies to buy five packs of baseball cards, the packs were a nickel apiece, a penny a card.
It was a great joy to open each pack and discover what new cards I added to my collection. And, it wasn’t disappointing to find a duplicate because those cards were good for trading with my friends. Of course, the gum was a bonus. Over the years, with collected pennies, I bought thousands of baseball cards. Now those cards are worth a lot of money, even the no-name players of the 1960’s have gone up in value. Not a bad investment from a few pennies. Ah, for the good old days.
This week many of you will receive your early ballots for Proposition 100, the Temporary One-Cent-Sales Tax. By voting Yes on Proposition 100 you will be supporting children in our schools. Without the temporary sales tax increase, public and charter schools will be laying off hundreds of teachers and staff, increasing classroom size to forty, eliminating art, music and physical education and drastically cutting after school programs including most sports.
School have already had to lay off teachers and staff, eliminate full day kindergarten, slash programs for gifted students, reduce early education intervention programs, and postpone building and maintenance. Arizona ranks at the bottom in terms of educational spending and quality. Without the passage of Proposition 100, our poor educational system will be cemented at the bottom for generations to come.
Yes, pennies add up. I understand that concept. I understood it the age of six. I want to make the same investment in the education of today’s children in Arizona that was given to me and to my own children. I grew up here and my children were educated here, this has been a good State for our family.
Ah, for the good old days. We pay a smaller percentage of overall tax today in Arizona, than we did in the Goldwater era. In 1990, a study was conducted regarding the approaching millennium and the tax structure needed for the future. The report concluded that Arizona’s balance of income, property and sales tax was fairly equitable. Since that time, our legislatures have swung the burden of tax to rely heavily upon sales tax. If the legislature had left the tax structure that the Goldwater era conservatives put in place, today we would have an extra $3 billion dollars in the State coffers, plus a rainy day fund. Ah for the good old days.
I am in favor of investing in children of today for the sake of tomorrow. Please join me in voting Yes on Proposition 100.

Monday, March 08, 2010

She wore her wedding dress on the light rail

When my daughter is so happy, she can’t stop smiling because she has married the perfect man and just had the perfect wedding – and when the clouds break and the sunlight streams through the Cathedral’s blue stain glassed window at the moment of the consecration of the Eucharist – time stood still.

On a partly cloudy Saturday afternoon in downtown Phoenix at Trinity Cathedral, I experienced a holy moment. Honestly, it was pretty much an entire holy day. Our daughter’s wedding brought together family and friends to celebrate the experience of love and laughter. The day turned into night and the party continued, right there at the Cathedral.

Imagine that – a hundred people, young adults, young families, a few oldies – experiencing the holy and the sacred and having the best party they had ever experienced (their words not mine) – how does that happen at church? Our party had great dancing, to today’s best tunes, good wine (and other spirits) and a room filled with the hoops and shouts of joy.

I will be so bold to suggest that it is what Jesus intended when he performed his first miracle at a wedding, of course he turned water into wine – one that wedding was celebrated for days (at least we didn’t run out of wine.)

I wonder what would happen if every holy and sacred worship service in the Episcopal Church broke out into a party? Why not? What keeps the church from being a moment of holy celebration? Nothing. Not a thing.

The Episcopal Church sits around and scratches it head, wondering, pondering, and agonizing over how to save the Church from a gradual demise. The Church asks itself, its best minds, even peers over the fence at its neighbors desperately hoping for solutions to the apparent absence of young voices. How do we get young people into our parishes? What is the best form of evangelism?

I don’t have the answers. Honestly, I don’t feel the need – I do know this – Saturday the Church did it what it does best; the holy was experienced in a unique way, a way that the Episcopal Church knows how to do well and because we are a people who know and encourage a good party, it happened right at the Cathedral, right in the church, without apologies, in the presence of clergy and God dancing right along side us (his name was Robert and her name was Veronica.)

Thank you AJ and Phil for inviting us to your God graced party – where time stood still – and you gave us a good strategic plan for church growth (just party! and wear your wedding dress onto the light rail!)

Monday, February 01, 2010

mystic Christians

I made a commitment to a life coach in front 60-plus of my colleagues and the Bishop that I would spend more doing what I really love – writing. That means being more faithful to my blog. So, before I give the dog his weekly bath, have lunch with a dear friend, go to Costco to buy things for our daughter’s wedding (I’m in charge of the bar, go figure, no comments about that please), stop at the grocery store and then drop by and see my mom – I want to say Happy Feast Day of St. Brigid’s and happy birthday to Jana and Betsy who are part of St. Brigid's Community, cool day for a birthday.

At our last St. Brigid’s gathering I suggested (through the work of Richard Rohr, The Naked Now) that those of us who are Christians consider the possibility that we live our lives as mystic Christians. Which is different than a Christian mystic like St. Teresa or St. John of the Cross. Emma, who is nine, wanted to know what I meant by being a mystic. I told it was like looking through a different set of glasses. I wish I had told her to go look in the mirror.

Mystic Christians, writes Rohr, are people who see with the “third eye,” derived from the Presence of God. And that Presence, union with God, comes about through prayer, which is intense intimacy with God, intimacy with ourselves, intimacy with others, and intimacy with life.

I’m not sure what that might look like tomorrow, but today I am willing to dive into it and see how deep the Spirit will let me go.

Okay, the dog really needs a bath.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Tribute to Tim Salmon, GCU Hall of Fame

The late Jim Brock once told me the biggest mistake he ever made in coaching at ASU was to not aggressively recruit Tim Salmon. That’s probably one of two things Coach Brock and I ever agree on.

Tim was drafted out of Greenway High School in 1986 by the Atlanta Braves, and fortunately for Canyon, he took our meager scholarship offer, instead of signing with the Braves.

By the time Tim left Canyon, three years later, he owned Canyon career records for Home Runs (51), Runs Batted In (192) and Runs Scored (225). He was second in all time average (.383) and Hits (229). And he was fifth in Games Played, At Bats and Doubles. In 1987 and 1988 he led Canyon to the NAIA World Series finishing fourth and second. To say the very least, based on his Canyon baseball accomplishments alone, Tim more than deserves this award tonight.

But, obviously, the story on Tim continues. In 1989, Tim was drafted in the third round by the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim. His early minor league career was marred by being hit by a pitch that broke his jaw, an injury that would end most player’s career. But, a broken jaw would not stop Tim.

In 1992, Tim was baseball’s Minor League Player of the Year. In 1993, he was selected as the American League Rookie of the Year, the only Angel to ever win the award. In 2001 he was the American League Comeback Player of the Year. In 2002, he was awarded the Hutch Award for his competitive spirit. And in 2002 he led the Angels to their only World Series Championship.

Tim retired after 14 seasons with the same team, a rarity. Tim is the Angel’s career leader in Home Runs (299), walks, slugging percentage and second in RBI’s. He is considered to be the best hitter ever produced by the Angel’s franchise.

Tim’s Major League career certainly adds to the reasons he is being honored tonight. But there is a whole lot more to Tim’s life than baseball.

Tim and his lovely wife Marci, met here at Canyon. Marci told me that she knew Tim was the guy for her when he picked her up for their first date. He was driving the oldest and most delapitated car she had ever seen. But, every time she got in and out of the car he opened the door for her and that won her over. Tim and Marci have four beautiful children, Callie, Jacob and the twins Ryan and Kaitlin.

Tim and Marci have founded the Tim Salmon Foundation for the benefit of needy children. And they are also deeply involved in Neighborhood Ministries.

Grand Canyon has also been the recepient of Tim and Marci’s generosity. They donated the funds for the Tim Salmon Baseball Clubhouse and for scholarships in the College of Business and the College of Education.

Tim, never one to rest on his laurels, went back to school and graduated from Canyon just this past year.

Tim is a man of deep faith. Saint Francis said, “Preach always and when necessary use words.” I see Tim Salmon when I hear that statement.

I want to close with two very brief short stories.

I was privileged to attend the Angels home games in the 2002 World Series. I had some great seats in right field, where Tim played. I went early to all four games. When I arrived for the first game, there was a young man with his son sitting in front of me. He was a chatty guy and before long we were new best friends. He told me these were his dad’s season ticket seats, which he had bought the Angels first season. Every year his dad would take him to Phoenix to watch the Angels in Spring Training. And every year his dad would predict that this would be the year the Angels would win it all. Teary-eyed the young man told me his dad had died the year before. His dad would have been so proud of the Angels and especially Tim who was his favorite player. This young guy told me that the reason he attended church was because of Tim’s witness and lifestyle.

After the Angels won the seventh game, the Angels owner, Mrs. Gene Autry handed the trophy to Tim and he did a victory lap around the field. When he ran by our seats that young guy turned to me with tears streaming down his face, “That’s for my dad,” he told me.

After Tim won the Rookie of Year Award a scout told me I should be out looking for another Tim Salmon. Scouts never were my favorite people. In one of my better moments I told that scout the obvious. Every coach should be so lucky to have one Tim Salmon during their coaching career – but, there’s only one Tim Salmon – and he’s already played for Canyon.

Congratulations Tim – and this is the best compliment I can give you Tim, you are a Canyon guy.